Disclaimer: I make absolutely no financial gain from the writing of this story, woe. Meh. It comes with the territory. What's the use of being an artist if you can't fulfil the starving stereotype at the same time, right? :P

A/N: UGH. SO SLEEPY. Okay, so obviously this is incomplete – I had been on a pretty good schedule of progress for a while, but then got severely derailed by a couple things ^^; (It's actually not even at the halfway point yet :S Thirty-three pages, and not halfway. I likes me some masochism, I does.) However, I'll be continuing construction on it, and updating it as regularly as possible in the coming weeks. Haha, so much for a oneshot, eh?

Anyway – this is undeniably, irrefutably, completely for my Sarah, dear Decorinne :) She is my utter best friend, with me through thick and thin, and it makes me ridiculously happy to be wishing her a third Merry Christmas with one of her favourite pairings ^__^ More to come, more to come, I promise! Hope you like it so far, love :) :heart:

Note: Any words that lack spaces between them are purely the evil work of FFnet, which does such things out of a deep and overwhelming and psychotic love for me. Merry Christmas, all ;)

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Voices in the Walls

Part I

Snow fell gently in the pre-dawn twilight of Traverse Town, glinting flakes spiralling through the streetlight glow. The temperature was below freezing, painful, Zexion moving swiftly along the sidewalk, the night's silence like a fog around him, while walls of cold tried pressing through his thick clothing to find his hiding flesh. His car was parked only a short distance away, but already he was wishing he had brought it closer, so he'd merely have had to step out from within its deliciously heated interior and straight over the pavement to his destination. However, that said, he would have ended up like this anyway – the building he was aiming for didn't have any heating yet, its gas supply had been shut off decades ago. One way or another, by choosing to come out before the sun was even showing a hint of its presence over the horizon, he had doomed himself to freezing half to death.

But honestly, who could have waited?

He had arrived in Traverse Town via a business class flight at four in the morning, and had his bag, briefcase and keys to a rented Lexus by half-past. The hotel would be waiting for him, concierge and bellhop poised to warmly welcome his custom at such a vile hour of the new morning… but in the end, he had ended up here. The map-book had been left open on the driver's seat as he stepped out into the cold further away than necessary, simply so that he could indulge in the endless pleasure of approaching his latest acquisition on foot for the very first time: the Royal King of Hearts theatre.

It was, as hoped, just as magnificent as it had appeared in the photographs. Although a relatively new structure, built in the last gasp of the eighteen-hundreds, it had been made as a beam-for-beam perfect imitation of the Royal Queen of Hearts theatre of Great Britain, a stage which had seen centuries of thespians take to its boards, including being the home to no fewer than four recorded debuts of Shakespeare's creations. While the Royal King of Hearts had been built to a smaller scale, and could boast not a fraction of the Royal Queen's presence and influence, it was nevertheless a beautiful and regal homage to her history. For Zexion, it had been no less than a case of love at first sight. He would never, no matter how much of an entrepreneur he became, own the Royal Queen of Hearts; and so it would instead become his pleasure and privilege to emulate her grand past within her lookalike. He honestly couldn't have asked for more.

And so here he stood, at ten to five on a frozen December morning, beginning to shiver as flecks of ice stuck to his woollen hat and scarf, gazing with quiet awe up at the boarded-over entrance of his theatre. He owned older ones, ones of greater, richer background in larger towns than this near-forgotten hub of the forties, but he knew already that there wasn't another theatre in all of existence that he would adore quite like this one. This… was his one and only Royal King of Hearts.

With a deep, contented breath, cold, gloved hands buried in his coat pockets, Zexion studied the building's face for a minute longer before moving away. The front entrance would be freed in the morning, renovations due to begin in earnest once the building safety inspection was performed two weeks from now. In the time leading up to it, Zexion had a series of skilled contractors set to come in and fix up the basic wiring and structural weaknesses, and, all going well, the next six months would be spent bringing the Royal King of Hearts back to its original resplendence. Its stage would once again be lit and living, the voices of today resurrecting the words and emotions of the long-dead for the enjoyment of all.

After a short hunt, Zexion found the long alleyway that spanned between the theatre and the restaurant beside it, following the dark path, hands gingerly touching the brick walls on either side as he stepped over a pile of discarded cardboard boxes, the occasional quiet scuff of his footsteps echoing back and forth. He left the amber glow of streetlights behind, the snow tumbling down a little thicker, but still soft enough to not be a nuisance. As he emerged from the alley's other end, near the theatre's service entrance, a droning bell sounded the fifth hour over the town. Zexion paused to listen, ears pricking at the sombre tone, waiting for the last of its resonant voice to fade from the early air before continuing with a slowly mounting air of excitement. In general, Zexion was not a man prone to overt displays of energy or emotion, but by himself like this, at this theatre in particular, he could feel his expression change to match the burning glow that grew in his chest and butterfly-tickled stomach – he was the proverbial child in a candy store.

Fingers fumbling into his left coat pocket, the man drew out a set of keys, some of them aged and ornate while others were more slender and modern. It was one of the latter that he employed, undoing a series of deadlocks protecting the place from mischief-makers and squatters, this being the one doorway that wasn't boarded-over. Even the windows had been covered, decades before, in tarpaulin and nail-ridden wooden planks, although by now these defences were beginning to fall apart. It was a good thing he had happened upon it when he did; many more years, and it could have ended up simply another piece of squalor in the world. The thought brought a pang to his heart, as the last of the locks came apart in his insulated leather-clad hands. Grinding back their metal bolts with some effort, he eventually took hold of the door's handle, twisted and pulled, hearing the hollow rattle of wood against wood before turning his strength the other way and pushing.

He winced as the swollen wood screeched across the floorboards. Fresh scratches were dragged over old, the man nearly falling inside as it released without warning, dust erupting all around with the sharp draught that entered the building, swirling up into agitated clouds, the aged wooden structure groaning at the intrusion. Coughing as dust particles tickled his nose and throat, Zexion briefly covered his lower face, breathing through his fingers as he stepped into the pitch darkness, blue eyes rising blindly to glance around. Cautiously, he ventured several paces forward, the theatre icy cold but dry, a perfectly still haven in which it felt as though time had ceased entirely. His gaze adjusted very gradually to the gloom, making him wish he'd had the foresight to bring a flashlight, but he was slowly able to identify edges, and the slight difference in hue between the black of his gloves and the surrounding air.

Experimentally, the man inched his hand away from his mouth, inhaling, finding the dustiness to still be – present, but not impossible to live with. Instead, he now pulled off his hat and pushed his fingers through his long fringe, sweeping it back from his eyes for maximum clarity, setting off to explore a little of the building. Of course, with such an absence of light it was difficult to really make anything out definitively; as he walked down a narrow stretch that he assumed was a hallway, he could only vaguely see things like doorways, some gaping holes that had been caused by hoodlums before the complete sealing off of its points of entry, and had an impression of emptiness over his head that must have been the arched ceilings he knew from the photographs.

Groping around an indent in the wall that he took to be a doorway, Zexion found a handle, squeezed it and twisted, opening onto a room that seemed even darker than the hallway, its atmosphere staler still, reminding him of just how long it had been since this place had been open to the public. For a long minute he merely stood there, listening to his breaths in the darkness, the pure silence frozen around him, eyes straining to see into the blackness but finding nothing to report back, the absolute quality of the pitch black impenetrable. At length, discovering that it was simply too dense to adjust to, he let out a disappointed tutand withdrew, closing the door again gently. Coat rustling around his ankles, he continued onward, the hallway suddenly seeming far more visible after the complete abyss of the doorway. A little way further, and the walls seemed to fall away, a large space developing around the man, filled with what at first could have been mistaken for a collection of misshapen ghosts caught in stasis, but which in fact turned out to be sheet-covered furniture, tables and chairs and, of all things, an old-fashioned dressing mannequin. Zexion wandered the space like a blind man, using his fingers to see, to feel the brittle fabric and layers of dust, the hard corners that lay beneath. He crouched, peering beneath the sheets from time to time, running a finger down the length of a solid-seeming chair that might or might not have had antique value. He would need to get an antiquer in here to take a look around, someone of good repute.

Rubbing the dust from his fingertips slowly, Zexion straightened, gazing around the room, part of the backstage warren that he now owned. He always liked to get a look-in on his projects, see what they were when they were raw, see how they improved as he restored or renewed them, but he had the feeling that he would be returning to this one time and time again, with a heart-wrenching reluctance to ever leave it quite completely alone. Not when it resembled the Queen of Hearts so very closely, and not now that it was his very own…

Obtaining the Royal King of Hearts had not been easy; for years upon years it had sat forgotten in this faded town, falling further and further into disrepair. Zexion had discovered its existence almost at the precise same moment as another wealth-ridden patron of the arts, when it had been decided by Traverse's mayor to either sell the place or tear it down. From there, a battle of wills had ensued, and Zexion had almost found himself out-bid in the struggle, before receiving an extra financial boost through another source and overtaking his opponent. As such, the Royal King was not quite entirely his own, but the woman with whom Zexion was sharing custody was just about the one person he could imagine stomaching such a joint venture with: Naminé van der Meer was a subtle enough personality to not stir up any feelings of jealousy or territorialism, and would not attempt to undermine his decisions. She had simply wanted to be part of the excitement, another great and loyal fan of the Royal Queen of Hearts, and that was a sentiment that Zexion could all too easily understand.

Relying on his remembered knowledge of the backstage layout of the Royal Queen of Hearts, a tour he had been granted several times throughout his life, Zexion continued onwards, finding another hallway, leaving whatever faint illumination penetrated through the service entrance doorway from the outside night behind him. The air grew thicker, the man forced to keep a hand on the wall at all times, picking his way carefully with his feet, not wanting to stumble over anything invisible in the dark. It was getting even colder, as though the passages of the theatre had retained every scrap of ice in the air and become a permanent refrigerative unit, a bleak, piercing quality to it that had the man shivering despite his numerous layers. The longer that he walked, the more the thought seeped in that perhaps he should return in daylight, when the world was a slightly, if not purely superficially, warmer place. At least then he would be able to see where he was going. But still, he ached to see the main stage – just once, just for this moment, to be the very first in countless years to lay eyes upon it. It wasn't the sort of experience he wanted to have with others nearby. And even if he couldn't see it, per se, to simply be there, to breathe it, if nothing else, and know that soon enough it would be revived – that would be enough for him. He would lavish the glory of the Royal Queen of Hearts upon this King, and replay her magnificent history within its walls.

With anticipation outweighing both blindness and cold, Zexion followed the directions within his mind, mentally matching up the hallways, the smaller scale of the place making it less of a journey than it had been in the Royal Queen. Before long, and with great triumph, the man emerged into a vast space that he could only assume was the stage. As expected, he couldn't see a damn thing, and he couldn't even step out onto the boards for fear that they would be too weak in places – he might be pushing the limits of foolishness by coming here at night, all by himself when he was expected elsewhere, but he wasn't going to plunge into complete stupidity – but nevertheless, he was standing at the wing, and this, this was good enough. He could return to his car and drive to the hotel, and sleep with pleasant dreams, having inhaled this old air, this potential.

He released a sigh of satisfaction, the smile invisible on his lips in the gloom, an expression which locked in place as a whisper emerged from the shadows. Zexion went rigid, eyes widening uselessly, trying desperately to suddenly see despite knowing that it was impossible at this point of the structure. Automatically, he held his breath, a frown in place as he tried to pinpoint the location of the noise. He had been so sure he heard something… and indeed, before he could begin to doubt, again there came a rustling, the soft hiss of a voice telling secrets in the dark. Zexion's heart started to pound, a twinge of fear clutching instinctively at his chest before he had a chance to logic it away, and again, again, he heard that whispering, coming as if from the opposite wing of the stage, like two people were crouched there, watching him, conferring amongst themselves. He swallowed hard, sucked in, and before good sense could intervene to order a swift retreat, the man demanded in a loud, harsh tone, "Who's there? This is private property, and you've no business being here, whoever you are."For a long moment, everything fell silent. All Zexion could now hear was the beating of his heart, the short, shallow puffs of his respiration.

Then, very clearly, he heard a woman laugh, and the sound of footsteps on the floorboards.

Suddenly, where there had been whispers there were now full voices, not just one or two but several of them, all holding a loud, rambunctious sort of conversation that the man within their midst could neither quite make out nor find a source for. What precisely had he stumbled upon? How many were here, and where exactly were they?

Before he could begin to figure it out, there was a sharp hissing, the many people saying, "Shh! Sh, sh!" and the noise died down, faded away from the air. For several heartbeats, Zexion felt as though he was alone again, that perhaps they had escaped down the opposite hallway and away like a series of teasing wood-nymphs. He then subsequently jumped with fright when one lone, low voice split through the silence:

"'Tis now the very witching time of night,
when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world.
Now could I drink hot blood,
and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on."

For a moment, Zexion felt as if his breaths were going to stop still within his chest, such a ripping burst of fear tore through him, punching him into raw submission… but his mind, forever quick, was struggling through the frozen sensation and attempting to relay something to his consciousness, something of worthy note, pushing through the layers of his imagination as it painted bloodstained images to frighten him with, inspired by the quiet, seizing voice.

His dry mouth opening, Zexion uttered, after a stunned interval, "…Hamlet. Act 3… Scene 2."

There were no further voices. Zexion remained rooted to the spot for some minutes longer, hearing not a scuffle, not a step, not a single whispering exhalation other than his own. It was as if the intruders had vanished into thin air; as if they'd never been there in the first place. And indeed, throughout their invasion, there hadn't been a single flicker of light or motion the entire time.

He could have almost believed that they'd… disappeared into nothingness. He hadn't heard them approaching, hadn't heard them leave, yet now as much as right at the start, Zexion had the unerring and eerie feeling that he had in fact been alone the entire time. The air was as dull and dry as ever, never having shifted a fraction with the presence of any others. They might as well have melted out of the walls, and then back into them with their message imparted, as though he were the intruder, as though he was impinging on private property.

Zexion was a pragmatic man. Sensible. Stalwart.

But even he, when alone in the depths of darkness, with unexplainable things occurring around him… even he was inclined to run, fear finally overwhelming all rational sense. With survival instincts thudding at his pulse points, he fled as though the hounds of hell were snapping at his heels.

---

"You sound distracted."

The soft, curious comment brought Zexion blinking out of a distant reverie, the man clearing his throat and pinching the bridge of his nose, attempting to focus on the task at hand. "My apologies. I didn't… sleep much."

"Ah, I understand. I always have trouble adjusting to new beds."

Naminé van der Meer, famous professional harpist in orchestral circles and now co-owner of the Royal King of Hearts theatre, was a gentle-toned woman with a delicate personality hiding a surprisingly steely interior. It would be some months yet before she was able to see the theatre for herself, with a punishing schedule currently eating up ninety-percent of her life as she toured with the Twilight Philharmonic Orchestra, and as such she had peaceably entrusted her duties to Zexion with great faith in his abilities. She believed he would do his best by both the theatre and their agreement, and indeed, Zexion had found himself in debt to her for her assistance in the winning of the deed; had it not been for Naminé, it would have fallen to a most vile personality, a concept which even now repulsed them both.

"Sephiroth is being disgusting, Zexion. He's taken to bombarding me with messages, desperate to meet." Naminé said it with a sigh, as though the last thing she wanted to be doing was complaining to her new business partner – but Sephiroth simply wasn't the sort of man one knew how to deal with all on one's own. Zexion massaged his brow, scowling at the trouble the man was causing.

"He still thinks he can convince you to withdraw your support," he muttered, feeling just the faintest stirrings of concern that he would somehow, in true Sephiroth fashion, manage to bring it about. Naminé, however, was less than impressed by his tactics, stating with her rarely-witnessed stubbornness, "All he does is make me want to hold on tighter. I won't let go of this opportunity, and I certainly wouldn't sell my soul to Sephiroth."

Zexion laughed, relaxing a little. He sat on the bed of his hotel room, a towel in hand as he slowly dried his hair after having had his morning shower at eleven-thirty – the latest he'd allowed himself to toss and turn without result before abandoning the idea of sleep altogether. The call to Naminé had been a promised activity, his vow upon the two of them signing the documentation for the theatre being that he would keep her rigorously updated on its progress. He wasn't, however, willing to reveal his early foray into its depths to her. He barely knew what to think of it all himself, let alone scrape his thoughts together to relate with coherence to another. "Does that mean that you've sold it instead to me?"

Naminé joined in the laughter, correcting with rather pinpoint accuracy, "I would say it's more a case of the pair of us selling ours to the Royal King of Hearts. Or, at the least, placing our hopes within it like a music box keepsake." For a brief moment, Zexion was able to forget about all that was negative in the world and focus on that one shining pearl of a notion. His chest warmed with the thought of the Royal King acting as a treasure box to his dreams; it was typically poetic of Naminé to have stated it as such, part of her appeal as an artist. The mood was broken, however, by her continuing in the earlier vein of, "It's all because of poor Cloud, you know."

"The fiasco with the Royal King?" As the woman hummed confirmation, Zexion grimaced, rolled his eyes heavenward. "Cloud despises Sephiroth," he sighed. "The man is an idiot when he's fixated."

"More like a brute." Naminé sounded quite serious now, the earlier humour dissipated from the conversation. "I've been hearing stories, you know; Sephiroth isn't leaving him alone, even for a minute. Everywhere he goes, Sephiroth is like some possessive shadow. If it were me, I'd be terrified, but Cloud's too stubborn to admit that that man has got him intimidated."

Zexion felt a spike of impatience. "He really is impossible. If it weren't for him wanting the Royal King simply for Cloud's sake, we wouldn't have had to pay nearly as much."

Sephiroth's driving force in attempting to obtain the Royal King of Hearts had been the promise to Cloud that he could play leading man in all its many productions for a six-year contract. The prospect had to be tempting; Cloud was a talented actor, and loved the stage, and a six-year post of guaranteed leading roles at what would inevitably be quite a famous theatre was like manna from Heaven. No man in his right mind would refuse it. However, Sephiroth had a tendency to shove peoples' right-minded states off-kilter, Cloud's especially so. Their relationship had once been public knowledge, just as had its fiery destruction when it turned out that Sephiroth was something of a sadist, and Cloud had struggled free of his influence. Once upon a time, Cloud had been a lead for Sephiroth's production company, but since then, after leaving almost two years prior to now, he had been working at smaller companies off and on, avoiding Sephiroth. Sephiroth's great idea that he could woo the man back with the promise of the Royal King had created a vicious battle to obtain it, but Zexion had to admit that he didn't mind the current arrangement. He had several theatres which he solely owned; it would no doubt be a positive experience sharing such a lucrative one with someone so involved in the arts.

"Does he know yet that we've approached Cloud to sign for a three-year contract?" Zexion couldn't help the upward curve of his lips, a smirk at the near-coup hard to fight off. It wasn't that he was snapping Cloud up deliberately to aggravate Sephiroth – nobody with half an ounce of sense did that deliberately – but knowing what the man's reaction would be when he found out what his rival company was planning, Zexion would have liked to be a fly on the wall when it dawned.

Naminé sounded less amused by it all. "I'm still not sure that was so wise, Zexion… Sephiroth has been quite… adamant in his pursuit of me. He still thinks he can somehow pry the theatre away from you, and right now, that's all he's thinking about. If he finds out that you're trying to sign Cloud on the provision of three years at the Royal King as well…"

"Don't speak of him like he's a demon, Naminé. In the end, he's nothing but a man." Zexion waved a curt hand, backing it up by a dismissive snort for her audible benefit. "His own mistakes led to him losing a fine actor, and he can't complain if others manage to pick up the slack after him." He picked up his shirt from the edge of the mattress, keeping the receiver against his ear with one shoulder as he pulled his arms into the sleeves. "Besides, Cloud's been out of his hands for ages. It's not like we're stealing him out from under Sephiroth's nose. Perhaps if he was less of a gigantic bastard, life wouldn't be so cruel back."

Naminé remained unconvinced. "Just take care around him. You know how likely it is that he'll see things from anyone's perspective but his own."

"You're the one who needs to take care," Zexion countered. He began buttoning, shrugging to keep the phone in place, glancing at his wristwatch. "Just don't let him bully you, he's got to grow up sometime." Standing, he said, "Naminé, forgive me, I promised to meet the contractors at the Royal King, and I'll barely make it as it is."

"Oh! You should have said so sooner, I wouldn't have kept you."

He bit back a spike of reluctance, smiled thinly despite the fact she couldn't see him, replying, "It's always a pleasure to talk to you. I'll see you at dinner tomorrow to let you know how everything's going. Good luck on the tour, and with Sephiroth."

"Good luck with the Royal King," she replied warmly, and in the next moment, Zexion had hung up, was smoothing his hair and running a comb quickly through it. He stood in front of the tall mirror hanging above the nightstand, the hotel room reflected behind him, expensive, comfortable, yet somehow suddenly alien. He felt a strange uneasiness in the base of his stomach as he gazed at himself, his fringe falling over the left half of his face, his skin paler than usual beneath it, due to lack of sleep, an excess of thoughts replaying in his mind. He didn't believe in ghosts. Didn't believe in supernatural phenomena, limiting them strictly to the imagination; not that that was anything to underestimate, he was a lover of imagination, it was that and his equal adoration for the ability of those who brought imagination to life that had got him to where he was today, a highly respected member of the arts community… But this time, imagination was the enemy. Imagination… was whispering to him, like the voices early that morning had whispered, only this time, he could understand every word, and had to keep slamming it back with, I do not believe it ghosts!

He refused to believe he had purchased a haunted theatre. There was no – such – thing. And certainly not from the Royal King of Hearts, even if the place had been abandoned for nigh on seventy years, and he had been the first person since the previous century to actually step foot within it, disturbing its… its slumber, and…

"Be sensible," he hissed, reflection's expression contorting back at him with the conviction of his words, and on this declaration, Zexion turned away, finished getting ready, and headed back out into Traverse Town.

The contractors were waiting for him out the back of the theatre when he arrived, not altogether impatient considering that they were being paid for every minute that he extended their stay, but ready to begin the tasks for which they had been employed. There were currently only five in total, ranging from carpentry to electrical needs to plumbing, but their numbers would increase when the general inspections were done and working quotes given for beginning the basic restorative efforts. With only faintly trembling hands did Zexion once again unhinge the many padlocks from the service entry door and swing it open, expecting the terrible scraping again, but finding that it moved quite smoothly. Evidently, it reserved that sort of thing for when one was alone and not supposed to be there.

Although the thought came to mind sarcastically, he couldn't help feeling the slightest chill. It could almost have been true.

Shaking himself firmly, Zexion stepped into the building, breaking boldly through the invisible barrier that he had imagined to exist, finding no resistance in the air as he did so. Rather, the building accepted him, the contractors in tow as his shoes once again scuffed the aged floorboards. Just like last time, his eyes lifted automatically to survey his territory, only this time it was actually light within the theatre. It flooded in through the myriad chinks in its encasing, hammered-on armour of boards and tarps, sunlight pushing through the dust and gloom, and for a moment, the man actually forgot that he was disturbed about anything; it was a different place during the day. Gentler, perhaps, than it had been when it was dark.

The tension within Zexion, which had lain unabated from the moment he had escaped those hours ago and scrambled to relatch the insane amount of locks, relaxed somewhat; he felt his shoulders loosen, his mind ease back from its watchful state. Whatever had happened, and whatever he had thought he'd heard… no doubt it all had its rational explanation. Simply because he didn't automatically know what that explanation was was certainly no cause for alarm; there was more in existence than couldbe known in one short human lifespan, and that meant that ignorance, no matter how fiercely fought against, would remain a solid bedfellow from the beginning of one's breaths to their inevitable expiration. It was just one of those things you had to deal with, and accept. There was a high likelihood, now that he stood here in daylight, with the company of several disinterested parties who wanted nothing more than to get their jobs done, that he would never find out what had occurred here when he had been alone. After today, the Royal King of Hearts would never lie silent again, and that meant that whoever had been here during those young hours would be forced out, forced to find somewhere else to reside… whoever they may have been.

They'd quoted some bloody good Hamlet, he knew that much, and perhaps that was the only solid thought he could take away from the experience.

Taking a deep breath, he let his gaze roam this initial room with curiosity, drawing the collar of his coat higher around his neck against the deep cold that never quite went away. Yes, superficially it was very much like the Royal Queen of Hearts, he could recognise it even just by looking at the ceiling, differing in only one way – this place was old in a worn, dilapidated way, and filled with forgotten junk and objects that he expected he could have some fun sorting through. One never knew when something of value could be hidden in amongst a stockpile of disposable items, he'd come across it and heard of it often enough by now to feel a tingle of anticipation at the thought of exploring the theatre's many corners in search of abandoned treasures.

"Please take your time and be thorough in what you have to do," he announced to the contractors, "and come and find me if you need me. I'll be looking around for an hour." He supposed he should try it again, and do it properly this time. It really couldn't compare in darkness to what it was in light, anyway; it had been a little bit foolish of him to be so impatient earlier, when he couldn't have got a full impression of the place due to the blackness. His excitement had overridden his good sense, and he had suffered some strange consequences as a result. From now on, he would be sure to heed the experience as a detached sort of warning, and play things a little more by the rules and perhaps slightly less by ear. For a little while, at least.

With this sentiment held firmly in mind, Zexion left the contractors and strode on down the slender hallway he had travelled earlier that morning, this time able to see every crack and crumbling piece of wall, able to avoid the slight warping of floorboards, and when he reached that first doorway again, he was able to push it open and peer inside, with actual results. Of course, there wasn't much to see; some more cloth-covered furniture, and what looked to be a lumpy basket filled with ancient costumes. He ventured in, bent down beside the basket and picked carefully through with his forefingers and thumbs, trying not to inhale the musty air that the fabric gave off, shying away from fungus spores growing where dampness had evidently invaded. He was glad to be wearing gloves, that was for certain. He had no intention of proving any dandy-ish stereotype of the typical arts patron, but neither was he was a great fan of mould and filth, and wasn't keen on getting any of this muck in contact with any part of his flesh or respiratory tract. Holding his breath until he was finished, he brushed his leather fingers clean on a semi-clean-looking Victorian-style laced dress and straightened up, backing away a safe distance before inhaling again. He could taste old moisture in the air, however, stirred up by his interference, and so decided to abandon this room for now. The styles he'd seen within the basket had been nothing special; not inelegantly put together, but not all that fabulously skilful, either. He'd come across better, and would end up junking the whole basket in the clean-up.

Emerging back into the hallway, curiosity satisfied for the present moment regarding the room he hadn't been allowed access to when it was black – and it had seemed so abyssal to begin with – he continued on, breathing the dryer, staler air, deciding to again make for the main stage. There was a second, lesser one, for the smaller productions that inevitably took place, and also so that more than one production could occur at the same time, but it was the main one that held the appeal for Zexion – especially after early this morning. He had to see it for himself, had to… look for signs of life. He felt quite safe in doing so; after all, the workmen were but a shout away, he could bring them running to his aid in an instant. Still, he doubted he would need to resort to such measures; he doubted anyone was here.

Eyes taking in the building's deprivation along the way, feeling an ache at how badly it had fallen into disrepair over the years, Zexion arrived at the main arena. He slowed as he reached the same wing he had stood at mere hours ago, gaze boring into the dim space in the opposite wing, seeing no flicker of movement, before swinging slowly out onto the stage itself. It had been there, according to his ears, that the partial soliloquy had been delivered, those dark lines slithering out of the gloom. It had come from somewhere onstage, yet near enough that it had been so crystal clear to him. It had been a startling moment, and even now he couldn't help but feel a shiver. It was oddly quiet in this part of the theatre, the voices and footsteps of the contractors some winding hallways behind him, out of normal volume's earshot. It was an isolating feeling, this silence that hung around him like a cloud. At least it was day, though. That made all the difference between the man who had turned tail and run, and he who stood here now, stamping down on his nervousness and stepping out onto the stage.

Drawing a careful breath, Zexion ventured into the space that the voices had come from, eyes scanning the dusty floor for footprints. In his own wake he had left a faint path of disruption, smeared prints and a slight upheaval of agitation; but when he looked around, slowly exploring the stage area, making his way over towards the opposite wing, he found nothing like his own traces. The dirt, the dust of the years built up, was as thick as ever. He could bend down and drag his fingers through it, leaving a trail almost bright in comparison, even though the boards beneath were dulled with age. Crouched down with the tail of his coat extending out behind him, two fingers down to hold him steady while the others were studied, as if the filth he found on his gloves had answers to divulge, Zexion frowned. It was a troubled expression, eyes ticking past his hand to scour the ground ever more closely, the crease in his brow deepening. Behind him, his own evidential path through the dirt glared. The man… couldn't figure this out.

Straightening, wiping his fingers on his coat and leaving pale marks, he scowled in the direction of the left wing, prowled over towards it, hovering cautiously for a moment, casting a glance over his shoulder in the direction of the service entrance. He hesitated only shortly before continuing onward, forever in search of something, anything really, that would denote the presence of some other beings within the building. Fast food wrappers, empty bottles, cigarette packets, used needles perhaps; the sorts of things that might belong to the sorts of people that lurked in pitch darkness, whispering words that couldn't quite be heard like it was a fun joke. The more he thought about it, and the more that he was frustrated by their persisting lack of presence, the more Zexion was convinced that this was precisely the scenario that had come to pass; a bunch of kids, late teens or older ones in their twenties – college students perhaps. Was there a college in this area? He didn't think there was, he couldn't remember anything in the paperwork. It had been, however, a rushed proposal in the bid to defeat Sephiroth, and as such he hadn't really had a chance to research Traverse Town yet. So… there was a chance of it. He couldn't rule anything out. But still, despite this fresh idea, this grasped notion, Zexion found nothing to suggest that his theory was correct. There was simply… there was no sign, anywhere, that anyone had been in here; not for years. Not for – years upon years.

With a short, impatient sigh – this was weighing on his mind more heavily than he cared to admit – the man explored deeper into the other side of the theatre, the passages he hadn't yet sampled of the Royal King of Hearts. Despite his knowledge of the Royal Queen, and of theatres in general, it was still a matter of discovery and uncertainty. One couldn't know a place intimately until they had definitively entered every room and corner, and as such, Zexion proceeded with caution, not quite ready to throw his trust completely into what he thought he knew already. Feeling like some kind of misguided bloodhound with a confused sense of scent, his shoes created the only sounds there were to be heard as he proceeded down the mirroring hallway, opening each door he came to and pushing his head carefully inside. In each instance, he sniffed the air, trying to detect some change in quality to the flatness of the rest of the theatre, some variation of the pure scent of old. In each instance, he was immediately met with the same unwavering smell, and not a hint of anything else disturbed it, aside from that which he himself brought drifting along. It was as though he truly was the first to enter this space since it had been shut down in the late fifties, an unnerving and ultimately bewildering conclusion the closer he came to accepting it.

It was about midway through the search that he finally came across a room that felt different from the others. It wasn't an immense change of atmosphere, and probably if he hadn't been attuning his senses quite so acutely he wouldn't have noticed much at all… but as he turned one handle and opened the door into a store-room of some sort, Zexion couldn't ignore the subtle discrepancy between this small room and the rest of the theatre. It was nothing he could immediately put his finger on, but somehow something that had a powerful draw; he stepped inside, unable to resist.

Truly, the room appeared completely unremarkable, standing within its walls. It was dark, compared to the hallways lit with inward-bleeding sun, and smelled much the same as every other nook within the theatre – musty, stale, and with air so still you could practically taste the stasis. Yet, despite this… he – felt something. He felt a spark in the air here that hadn't existed within the rest of the building, a feeling of pregnancy similar to that which the outdoors might possess just before a violent electrical storm. How could such a sensation be encapsulated within this abandoned space? The longer he stood there, the more it grew, seeming to multiply and seethe around him, until he realised he was clenching his fingers into fists, the leather of his gloves creaking, lips pressed together thinly. His jaw was tight, brows drawn low, breaths coming slowly through his nose as he attempted to pinpoint what it was that he was feeling, or where it might be coming from. His nervousness rose to new heights, upper lip twitching, teeth clamping together with the first flickers of real fear, his imagination's whispers returned to the topic of ghosts and haunting. This was not… normal. What – what made this one room such a vortex of energy? What…

What was that up on the shelf?

The world narrowed with whiplash speed, all the energy that had been rolling through the air snapping in to focus Zexion's attention on one dark, lumpy object that sat at the very top of a shelving unit against the far wall. It made no sense, had no motivation, there was no reason why he should suddenly be enthralled by some nothingish item in the middle of an empty theatre, but none of this seemed to penetrate his mind, none of this logic meant anything. The pre-storm sensation had found its focal point, as if it had been merely waiting for a host, and everything within Zexion was compelled beyond reason to go and see it, touch it, handle it and discover what it was. This was more than the voices whispering out of the darkness, above a mere haunting; this was every fibre of his being driven like never before: this was possession.

Mouth dry, shuffling like a somnambulist, Zexion approached the display case, eyes fixed unwaveringly upon that one object that called to him. The entire Royal King of Hearts was filled with shelving units much like this one; some were wooden, others were metal, some were rickety, and others built powerfully enough that one could imagine taking refuge beneath them in the middle of an atomic explosion. The one in Zexion's sights was of the weaker variety, freestanding and rusted, its plateaus mostly empty, each one looking like the step of a ladder. Reaching with trembling hands, he tightened his fingers and thumbs around the fourth shelf up, hair falling away from his face as his head tilted back to gaze up at his prize. The object was wrapped in some sort of cloth, giving no clues as to its content. He would have to climb up there, and unwrap it, to find out.

His first foot was rising before he even paused to think about it, hands tightening, limbs working together to pull his body up that first step. It was quite a tall unit, and surely required a stepladder of some form to use its uppermost reaches, but at this moment in time, Zexion didn't feel he had enough breath to waste looking for one. Indeed, it felt like each exhalation was part of a countdown, and that to spend even a single one doing anything other than what he currently was would end in… in something. Would end.

Everything took a suddenly ominous turn, every shadow deeper, gaping, hungry. He couldn't explain this fierce impression, could only be swept along with it. It would have taken more effort than he thought he had within this one slender body to resist, and it felt as though trying to would be possibly the most dangerous event he'd embarked upon in his entire life. It honestly felt as though the Grim Reaper stood behind him, silently watching his ascent, waiting for one single hesitation in which to sweep in and take his head. It made him swallow, made his teeth squeak inside his skull as he climbed a second step, feeling the unit shake under his grip.

Sucking in each breath like every moment was borrowed time, Zexion climbed, no longer thinking, feeling only fear, and a splinter of panic, much like that which he had felt upon racing away from the theatre in the early morning, only more so. He was not a man accustomed to such emotions – fear, panic, what did they come from? They existed outside of his sedate being, and as such, experiencing them in the here and now he felt even more threatened, the dreadful thrill of adrenaline within his veins a foreign burn, making it seem even worse than perhaps it needed to be. He dragged himself up shelf by shelf, shivering violently, the motion translating from his body into the metal unit, its shaking becoming more pronounced the higher up he clambered.

He didn't realise that he had made a serious judgemental error until he had reached near to the top, the shaking becoming a dangerous sway, the unit banging against the wall and then away. Zexion's weight became an anchor for the created momentum to follow, the structure tipping, a tiny chip appearing in one of its legs at the strain, enough to send the entire thing crashing down. There was nothing at all he could do; and even if he could have perhaps jumped quickly down and saved himself from injury, instead he chose, he chose, to continue after the swathed treasure. It slid towards him in the final moment, touching his grasping right hand, it being disc-like and hard the only observation he had time to make before he crashed straight onto the ground with twenty pounds of disintegrating metal slamming down onto his soft body.

His head connected with hard floor, right hand clutching at his captured prize. The thought that he left consciousness on was that it didn't feel broken at all by the fall, whatever it was… and that this was all that ultimately mattered.

---

The world was pounding before Zexion was even fully conscious. Someone had set up a subwoofer next to his head, that had to be it, and then put on the most bass-loaded song they could find, all in the name of spite. He groaned, eyes squeezing, and let out a weak cough, hands rising limply to his stomach and chest, certain that there was supposed to be pain there. However, as he grasped at the front of his coat, he found everything to be – quite in order. Everything was nice and whole and uninjured, although his mind continued struggling to recall exactly why things shouldn't be this way. And then, as his hands flattened against his chest, he suddenly remembered one thing, very piercingly – the cloth-wrapped object. Why wasn't he holding it? Where was it?

Blue eyes shot open with anxiety, fingers clutching hard at his coat, only to find a pair of strikingly clear, upside-down green eyes staring straight into him, a bare half-inch away. Zexion bellowed his fright, and above him, the green-eyed figure answered with a blasting shriek of his own. They both jerked upright at the same time, miraculously missing cracking their noses together by the width of a finger, scrambling to opposite edges of the room. Rising to his feet first, Zexion whipped around, an accusing finger stabbing out, shouting, "You! You were here last night, weren't you? Early this morning? You were one of the ones teasing me – I knew I was right, I knew you were actual people!"

"I didn't tease anyone! I just came in and found you lying there!" came the desperate, bleating response. The person on the other side of the store room, frantically glancing at the door which lay almost exactly between them, was a young sort of man, tall, blond, with an oddly spiked hairstyle and an agitated air. He wore curiously dated clothing – brown pants, a white shirt, and, of all things, suspenders holding it all together. He was perhaps ten years younger than Zexion, obviously one of the suspected college students the man had wondered about. It seemed as if Traverse did have a tertiary schooling institution around somewhere, and the Royal King of Hearts must have been a hangout for them.

Adopting a stern, commanding stance, Zexion drew himself up stiffly, eyes narrowed, voice scathing. "Whatever fun you think you've been having here," he said, "the time has come to move on. I own this theatre, and over the next half-year it's going to be renovated completely and made fit for new audiences. There's no room left for you and your friends, so find somewhere else to go!"

The blond, who up to now had been wringing his hands and cowering under the vehement power of Zexion's tone and gaze, suddenly froze. His eyes widened, a shocked, stung expression sweeping over his face, replacing his wincing fear and leaving him looking – quite lost and confused. If someone had taken an adorable puppy and kicked it hard in the rear, then laughed and walked away, the face that the puppy would have worn would have been on par with this boy's. Zexion briefly stumbled in his self-righteousness, a needle of guilt stabbing into him before he had a chance to shake it off. Perhaps, considering the blond's clothing, he wasn't a college student at all but – homeless? A runaway, perhaps? He looked a little old for the latter, but one never really knew, he supposed.

The boy slowly straightened, his expression actually getting worse, a stunned grief rising to the fore, voice trembling as he said, "They're shutting us down? Why? Are we being replaced?"

"I…" Zexion blinked rapidly, struggling with the flustered beginnings of shame, along with being somewhat puzzled by the boy's choice of words. "Replaced by whom?"

Eyebrows knitting together, the blond cried back, "That's what I want to know! What do you mean, we have to find somewhere else? You're kicking us out?" He paused to drag his fingers through his hair, confessing with extreme bewilderment, "I didn't even know the theatre was under new management! What the heck is up with that? Why am I always the last to know?"

Startled, Zexion demanded, "Do you mean that there are people still here? Using the theatre?"

Shooting him an incredulous look, fingers still in his hair, the kid replied, "Well, yeah. I can't talk for everyone else –" Zexion didn't know what to think about that: Everyone else? "– but I for one was completely uninformed about us having to leave. No one even mentioned it to me. And hey, we're right in the middle of a big production, you know, so how does that work?" His hands lowering to his sides, the blond apprehensively looked at Zexion's outfit, the costly heavy coat over designer jeans, nothing too formal considering the dirty quality of the theatre. "…Where are you from, some big city or something?" He frowned with abrupt thought. "And how come you were on the floor, anyway?" Slowly, suspicion began to dawn over the blond's features. "Are you really the new owner? Because you look kind of young for that."

Indignantly, Zexion replied, "I beg your pardon, but I can assure that I am the rightful owner of this establishment, and furthermore..." He broke off as the youth smirked across at him, scowling in return. "…What? What's that look?"

The boy tilted his head to one side, hands rising to his hips, the smirk softening into a knowing smile. "You know something? I think I've heard of you. You're that guy, aren't you?" As Zexion stared, he shook his head with a laugh. "I have to admit, I thought you'd be younger, but…"

"I'm sorry," interrupted the man stiffly, "but who do you think I am?"

With an indulgent grin, the blond stepped forward, all at once inexplicably unafraid, and held out a hand to shake. "My name's Demyx. I'm part of the stage crew for the current production. And you – you're the owner's son, aren't you? I heard you wanted to make some big changes around here, but you're going to have to wait a while yet, because the old man likes it how it is. Apparently it's like some other theatre or something, a really nice one that did original Shakespeare plays."

"The Royal Queen of Hearts," Zexion supplied automatically, reaching out, courtesy forcing him to return the handshake, before commonsense intervened and he tugged free. Pinching the bridge of his nose and waving his other hand dismissively through the air, he began, "No, wait, you've got it all wrong, I'm –"

At the same moment, Demyx brightly started, "Hey, yeah! And we're the Royal King of –"

"Demyx! Are you bloody in here crying again?" A pale-featured man appeared at the doorway with enough suddenness to make both the males jump, throwing a glance at the boy before zeroing in on Zexion with a blond, arched eyebrow and a swift, scrutinising up-and-down. "Oi. Who're you?"

"I could ask the same of you," Zexion returned coldly, feeling a buzz of irritation. This man had on similar attire to the boy, only without any vague cuteness whatsoever to make it work.

"Luxord!" the boy hissed, throwing Zexion a nervous look. "Be polite, this guy's the theatre's owner's son!"

The man, Luxord, stared at him for a moment, before returning his eyes to Zexion. There was a beat of silence. "…Oh. Right." He turned back to Demyx. "What?"

"He's –"

"No, look. Wait." Zexion held up a hand, halting their conversation, massaging his brow as his headache continued to throb. "Neither of you should be here, I don't quite understand how this place became so populated all of a sudden. This theatre, my theatre, is supposed to be empty."

The newcomer resumed his staring. "…Right. As you say, sir." He swung back to the blond. "Demyx, darling? You're needed onstage, one of the corners of the backdrop has come loose, and Cid has buggered off to have a cigarette as per usual. Your skills are required."

Before the boy could respond to the summons, Zexion burst out with frustration, "There is no backdrop, what are you talking about? I went through the stage area just a short while ago, there shouldn't be anything that has loose corners to speak of!"

"Oh, Demyx," the blond man sighed, turning and leaving again, "why do you always find the fun ones to play with?"

"Heeeey," Demyx whined, "I didn't find him, he found himself, he was already here! It's not my fault!" Then, realising what he was saying, the boy turned with an uneasy half-smile to Zexion, saying, "Uhm, I mean, uh… Sorry?"

Zexion, anger now stealing through him at the way everyone was acting so goddamn blasé about this – he didn't mean to sound childish, but, damn it, this was his theatre – opened his mouth, lifted his finger, started striding across the room readying a lashing response for the witless boy… when something occurred to him, startling him utterly silent for a long series of moments. His feet stuttered to a halt partway across the room, eyes up on the ceiling, mouth agape. With Demyx studying him warily, even more cut off from the exit than he had been now that Zexion was virtually blocking it, the man felt something in his head short-circuit. "…Since when," he asked huskily, "is there electricity in here? It was supposed to take a week just to get it going again, not to mention replacing all the dead bulbs…" He trailed off. The mechanism was simple, just a hanging, naked bulb with a dangling chain, but the light it cast was bright and unwavering, illuminating the entire room warmly. It stunned him that he hadn't noticed it right away. He had grown so accustomed to the gloom; to have it suddenly dispelled like this was impossible. It – shouldn't have been true. The contractors were just supposed to spend today looking, and taking note of what needed doing, so that they could present him with their working quotes before beginning the necessary repairs. He felt a bolt of sheer disbelief, scrubbing one hand across his face violently, as if doing so would lift the illusion from his eyes – but when he looked again, Demyx was watching on with a worried expression, and the room was just as bright as ever.

Not only that, but the place had completely lost its rundown appearance. It struck him like a brick to the skull – nothing looked old, nothing was broken. There were things all over the place, some cleaning equipment, some maintenance stuff, boxes with scrawled labels and props spilling out of them. When he whipped around, he saw the shelving unit that the swathed object had been sitting on, but it looked solid, it was upright, and, while not new, it was definitely within its use-by date.

Without realising it, Zexion had begun gasping, once again clutching his front where he was so sure that very same display case had toppled onto him. It hadn't been heavy enough to crush anything, but it should have at least left some bruises. And what about that which he had so desperately pursued? He had had it in his hand when he'd passed out; where was it now, though? He peered, but couldn't see it on the shelf, or even the floor. Nothing – nothing was making sense.

"Hey…" Demyx took a step towards him, concern deepening. "Are you okay, Mister? Hey, why were you on the floor like that? Are you sick? Do you need a glass of water?"

Water. Something nice and normal. Zexion nodded sharply, hearing his unsteady breaths and trying to even them out. "Yes," he said, sounding strained, "thank you, please."

"Well, um… right this way." Tentatively, awkwardly, Demyx offered an arm for support. The man grasped it without a second thought, leaning onto the boy, legs feeling more rubbery than he was used to.

"But – the pipes aren't working," Zexion mentioned in afterthought, at which the blond had the nerve to look surprised.

"Oh, really? Nobody told me. I'll check and see, anyway, maybe they got fixed."

Already? Zexion wanted to say. Impossible! Do you know how old those pipes are? But his tongue remained still within his mouth, lips thin, a general queasiness having briefly swept over him at the many bewildering inconsistencies, along with the fact that his head, despite whatever other injuries refused to exist, truly did ache quite badly. He didn't doubt that he'd hit it, that was for sure. Perhaps he'd sustained a concussion. That might explain a thing or two. Perhaps this was all just a fever dream. The thought was almost comforting.

Demyx led him out of the store room, and once again, Zexion was in for a shock. The air around him became grimmer, the blond darting him uncertain glances as they travelled down the illuminated hallway. The backstage warren of a theatre was almost always a gloomy place without lights on, there being few windows to the outside world through which natural light could enter. On his way in to the Royal King, Zexion had of course grown accustomed to the quality of darkness and learned to see through it; now, such a thing was unnecessary, due to the regular studding of lights along the roof. They were dimmer than these places usually had, since halogen was all the rage, being cheaper and longer lasting, but the fact that there was light at all, let alone this wide-spread, should have been at least a week away. His chin lowering, he straightened a little from Demyx, nerves stretching tight. "…I don't understand," he muttered. Nothing was right – none of this should have been happening. Not the light, not the unexplainable repairs of the rooms or the very hallway he was currently walking along, nor the presence of people other than himself and the contractors – certainly not a production company of any kind, he had exclusive rights to that now that the Royal King had been bought by he and Naminé. Gritting his teeth together, he growled out, "I don't understand what's going on."

A gentle hand patted his arm. When he looked across, Demyx had a sympathetic expression in place, and it occurred to Zexion that the blond had showed more emotion on his face in the last ten minutes than he could remember feeling in ten days, every moment of it worn on his sleeve for all the world to see. "It's okay," the boy said, having lost some of his anxiety in favour of a more comforting approach. "You'll feel better soon."

Zexion grimaced. "You're very kind." It hadn't been so long since he'd been throwing commands at the boy to get out, but like water through one ear and out the other, Demyx seemed to have forgotten the episode, and his earlier distress. The man couldn't quite decide if he was just very caring, or something of an idiot. He supposed that time would tell, one way or another, if the boy was around long enough for Zexion to get to know him. This was of course ignoring the fact that he shouldn't have been there in the first place, but Zexion felt that if he started fighting too hard against what should and shouldn't be, he would be rather endangering his mind. Obviously, things weren't quite as they had initially appeared, and it was time for him to stop gaping like a slack-jawed yokel at it all and simply take the world as it was. Later, he would call Naminé, and the agency responsible for selling them the Royal King of Hearts, and come Hell or high water there would be some very fast explaining done by somebody in the know.

The blond changed direction, opening a door and ushering him into a window-lit room, the glass looking out onto a collection of fir trees, letting in the day's glow. It was a relief to see, because it meant that in this room the electrical lights weren't on. That was too perplexing an issue for Zexion to wrap his head around, this presence of power, and so it eased the pressure on his nerves to not have to think about it for a short while. Of course, this was replaced by the fact that the room was a break area of some kind, cleanly furnished and possessing what looked to be functioning amenities, and he had to admit that the window was supposed to have been boarded up… but he postulated that if indeed this section of the theatre was still being used, then it was perfectly reasonable that its inhabitants shouldn't exist in such a gloomy atmosphere.

He had a theory developing, in the back of his aching mind: Demyx had taken him deeper into the theatre, away from the main stage. Zexion had of course entered from the opposite end of the Royal King, the right-hand section, while all of this activity was occurring in the left. The most logical explanation that he currently had was that the left-hand half of the theatre was still operative, although he wasn't sure how that worked regarding the electricity, but that was not an area in which he had any knowledge, so it would be all too easy for there to be a reason he was unaware of. A generator of some form, perhaps, could be behind it all. Then, taking into account the fact that the Royal King of Hearts had a second, smaller stage, he could safely assume that this was the one on which the production Demyx had described was taking place. Someone had made a grievous error in not informing him on the matter – he felt very much like complaining, much as the blond had, that he was always the last to know – but it was nothing that couldn't be discussed and worked out.

Although this didn't factor in the sudden change of conditions within the store room he had been in, he was sure that that could be logicked away as well. It had been dark within the room, and he hadn't bothered to try the light switch due to his belief that it wouldn't work, but if he had, it appeared he would have been met with an entirely different space. If he had tried it, and found it to be working, would the darkness have been blasted away and the room made to look much healthier and newer than his initial impression had allowed? He must have been influenced by his own expectation that it would be the same as any other room he had looked into. It was funny the way the mind could play tricks like that.

All at once, Zexion felt calmer. All he'd needed was a chance to think it all rationally through, and now that he had, the nausea was starting to subside, the strength returning to his limbs. Demyx sat him carefully down on a wooden chair, said, "Just relax, I'll get you a drink."

Again, Zexion said, "Thank you, you're very kind." As the blond made a dismissive motion with his hand, an affable smile thrown over his shoulder, Zexion watched him getting a glass from the sink under the window, letting several quiet moments pass before asking, "Have you worked here long? As part of the stage crew?"

Demyx glanced over, the sunlight streaming around him, and once more a smile brightened his face, although this time somewhat thinner than before. "Oh, I've been here off and on for years now." He filled the glass with crystal clear water from the faucet, making a small noise of approval at the fact that the pipes were in fact working, despite Zexion's assertion otherwise, and added, "Of course, I've always wanted to actually be in the plays we do, but I don't know, I've never really had that shine, I guess." He turned away from the sink, stretched across and handed the water over. "I should just be grateful I'm allowed to be here," he concluded with innocent fatalism.

Zexion stared at him. He hadn't really noticed it before – too busy being astonished by one thing and another, he supposed – but with that final statement imparted, his hair illuminated by the sun and his eyes open and simple and bright, and the curious outfit that made him look boyish… Zexion couldn't help but find himself momentarily enchanted by Demyx. Their hands touched as he took the glass, a minute shock snapping at his fingertips, the sort of which he hadn't ever encountered before upon merely touching someone. It made his breath catch. Demyx noticed his gaze, eyes widening as he returned the look, a pause developing between them. "…I think you have a shine," Zexion told him quietly.

Cheeks colouring, Demyx withdrew his hand, massaging it nervously as though he, too, had felt that current of energy flick between them. "I… um…"

"Demyx!"

Once again, the two men jumped. "Do people always just suddenly yell your name like that?" Irritably clutching his glass, Zexion turned to face the door as a trio of youths stamped into the room. He frowned at the look of them – not they themselves, they were normal people, two boys and girl, all attractive enough, but at their attire. He had supposed, upon coming into contact with first Demyx and then the man that had surprised them in the store room, Luxord, that whatever production they were putting on was periodic, requiring clothing from another era. In that, he wasn't entirely off the mark, but the period in which it took place was obviously much further back than first assumed – the trio were wearing traditional Shakespearean garb, tights and tunics and ruffles and lace, a tight bodice constricting the red-haired girl's waist.

"Hey, hi, you guys!" Demyx sounded happy to see them, Zexion's eyes flickering in his direction. The blond moved forward to greet them, gesturing to the man in the chair and starting to say, "Hey, you need to meet –"

The boy with long silver hair interrupted, before he could get any further, "Unless you want Larxene's foot to meet your ass, I'd get out onstage to fix the backdrop if I was you. She's not going to last much longer before she comes looking for you." His two friends nodded energetically, Demyx blanching, but then the girl briefly diverged to smile at Zexion.

"Sorry, we don't mean to be rude. Our lead actors are just being a little demanding today. We don't want Demyx to get into any more trouble for slowing them down."

"Slowing them down?" Zexion echoed archly. Unimpressed, he rose to his feet, his height not terribly commanding but his manner more than making up for it. At the sight of him, the three stilled, Demyx blinking from his other side. "Demyx is part of the stage crew, correct? And this Larxene, is she one of the demanding actors?" The trio glanced at each other with a hint of uneasiness, nodded in unison. Zexion scowled. "Then how is it, pray tell, that mere actors have a say in his actions or lack thereof? If all that is required is a repair of the backdrop, surely the rehearsal as it obviously must be can continue regardless. As for Demyx, his task should be enforced by the crew manager, not by actors. Actors without stage-construction experience have no idea what's involved in it, and have zero right to snap their fingers and demand a repair. If this Larxene woman is so eager for it to be fixed, get her a ladder and the tools and tell her to do it herself. The same goes for any other demanding lead actors you happen to have on your hands."

The trio gaped, Demyx looking star-struck, a broad grin slowly spreading across his face. Then, sounding close to laughter, the second boy, short with spiky brown hair, asked, "And… who are you, again?"

"He's the owner's son!" Demyx brightly volunteered, at which the man heaved a sigh.

"My name is Zexion. I am not the owner's son, I am the owner. The Royal King of Hearts belongs to me and an associate of mine. I wasn't even aware that anyone was operating here still until I arrived today."

The costumed lords and lady raised their eyebrows at the same time, like a practised motion, the silver-haired boy commenting sceptically, "You know, you look kind of young for that."

Dryly, Zexion quipped, "Would it suit you more comfortably if I were greying at the temples?" He took an experimental mouthful of water, found it to be much cleaner than was expected from such old pipes, and drained the glass Demyx had given him.

Demyx took it back off him, placing it over in the sink, and said, "Well, all that aside, I don't think Larxene and Marluxia would like you calling them mere actors. They are really good at what they do. I should probably go and have a look at the backdrop and see how bad it is."

Zexion squinted at him, then offered, "I'll come, too, then. I might as well see what exactly is going on within the theatre, after all, and I wouldn't mind coming face to face with these actors you've mentioned…" Straightening his coat, he added firmly, "They'll soon know that within my company, such behaviour is frowned upon."

The trio once again exchanged glances, before letting out a shared snort of mirth. "Good luck, Mister," the brunet boy said, taking the hands of the two flanking him and pulling them towards the door. "We, on the other hand, value our lives. We'll be in the fitting room if you need us, Dem."

Over her shoulder, the red-haired girl called sweetly, "It was nice meeting you, sir," the silver-haired youth contributing, "Yeah, sure," and then the three of them were gone. Their chattering voices and footsteps could be heard retreating down the hallway, leaving Zexion once again alone with the blond boy. Demyx was wearing a faintly wistful expression.

"They're a real unit, those three. I would envy them, if they weren't so nice to me all the time." His hands were in his pockets, a rueful smile in place, the very picture of placid yearning. He seemed lonely. But in the next moment, realising that Zexion was watching closely, he shook himself, dispersed the dim air that had begun to settle about him, and replaced it instead with what was becoming a rapidly familiar look of friendliness. "But anyway – are you sure you want to come with me? I don't want you to feel sick again, sir, and you're finally starting to get a bit of colour in your face."

"Please," he said, returning the warmth, "call me Zexion. And I'm feeling much better now. I'd quite like to see the set-up you've got; I wouldn't want to have to tear it down, if it's any good."

Demyx's eyes went round with horror, hands jumping over to seize the sleeve of the man's coat. "You can't! Please don't, we worked so hard on it! It's so beautiful! Zexion!"

He was close enough that the man could see the golden flecks in his brown eyelashes, the brown flecks in his green eyes, the shine of his teeth as he bared them slightly in worry. He felt a stab, a tightness in his chest, and couldn't explain where it was coming from. "Show me to it, then. If it's that good, then there'll obviously be no need to, will there?"

Looking uncertain, back to being wary as if finally realising the amount of power that Zexion had over the way things worked, Demyx nevertheless led the way out of the break room and into the passageway. They didn't turn immediately left again, but went to the right, back towards the heart of the theatre. This raised no alarm in the man; the arterial hallways branched off into smaller ones leading to the more minor sections of the building, and the second stage would be no different. However, as they began passing one turnoff after another, Zexion began to have some nagging doubts. Having walked with his hands buried in the pockets of his coat, a step or so behind Demyx, he dragged one out and touched the boy carefully on the shoulder. The blond slowed, sent him a questioning look, Zexion patting him once before pointing back behind them, venturing, "Weren't we supposed to turn back there? We are heading for the stage, aren't we?"

"Oh, sure," Demyx assured him, with a quick smile. "It's right this way. Don't worry, I know where we're going. I know this place like the back of my hand, really!" They continued in the same direction, Zexion casting a dubious look over his shoulder at where he was certain they should have taken a turn. Demyx, on the other hand, the light in his face dimming somewhat, flicked over a more apprehensive glance, and asked, "Zexion?"

Reluctantly, the man returned his gaze to the fore. "Yes?"

Demyx lightly bit his bottom lip. "Um. Are you really going to end up renovating this place? I was so sure that nobody was going to… or, you know, allowed to. The owner always really loved this place just as it is."

Zexion let out a low, gentle laugh, Demyx blinking at him with curious eyes. Reaching out, the man returned his hand to the blond's shoulder, squeezing and saying, "Demyx, relax. I have no intention of changing the Royal King; my only desire is to return it to the way it used to be, make it complete and magnificent again."

Doubt showed on the boy's face. "Did it really used to be that nice? I can't remember a time when this place was ever 'magnificent'… But I guess you'd know better than I do…" Confidence slowly infusing him again, he went on, "But no matter what, as long as you don't want to change things, that's good!" He beamed up at the man, face open and light. "Okay, then, I won't worry about it."

Zexion's hand remained on his shoulder, heart beating suddenly fast. He didn't know why, but… he didn't want to let go. He was finding himself attracted to the blond, he could sense that much about himself – he wasn't asexual, after all – but there was something else going on that he didn't have the ability to identify. Whenever he and Demyx had any contact, he felt a shiver; whenever the boy was speaking, Zexion concentrated on every word out of his mouth. When Demyx smiled at him, the man felt a thrill. But the one thing that Zexion did not ever do was become infatuated with others, no matter how fond of them he became, and especially not within the grand space of a twenty minute timeslot. This sudden urge to keep on gripping the boy, to stop him from walking and just stare at him for sake of staring, to absorb his features into his memory – it was alien, and powerful, and wrong. He certainly had no desire to feel or act this way, and he railed against it internally, but at the same time…

At the same time, this feeling he had, this sense of focus whenever he was engaging in some way with Demyx – it was similar to that which had struck him when he'd first seen the object up on the top shelf in the store room.

As the realisation came, he sucked a sharp breath, eyes narrowing. He had in fact ceased walking without noticing, still holding onto the blond, Demyx alternately glancing at the black hand on his shoulder and into the shorter man's face with disquiet. "You're feeling sick again?" he asked, to which Zexion thinned his mouth and shook his head.

"No." He sounded strained in his effort to seem normal. "No, I'm fine. Let's continue." They were now both staring at his hand, which had yet to disengage despite his words. Urgent signals started up in the man's brain. If he wasn't careful, he would end up squeezing too hard, would cause Demyx pain. He consciously forced his fingers to loosen, pulling back hesitantly, resisting the urge to smooth the site where he had managed to wrinkle the boy's shirt. He coughed self-consciously, lifting his hand to cover his mouth for something to distract himself with, and gestured with the other in a 'go on' motion, allowing the blond to continue. There was a flicker of uncertainty in Demyx's features, but he did as bidden, resuming the path towards the second stage. The only thing was, when they finally reached the stage's wing, as they moved into the busy territory of what was unmistakeably a dress rehearsal… he noticed that it wasn't actually the second stage.

It was the main stage.

Zexion had been here twice before, and each time it had been dead and deserted; although, he supposed the first time didn't necessarily count, since there had been the whispers from the darkness. But certainly the second time, he had been right here, in daylight, gazing at the empty, dusty expanse of abandonment embodied, searching for signs of footprints. There had been no mistaking it: the theatre had been deserted.

There was no mistaking it now, either; the place was alive.

The trick was finding a way for the two versions of truth to mesh, without Zexion's mind derailing in the meantime. All of his theories flew instantly out the window, every last one of them; the differences, the impossibilities, took their place. He trailed dazedly after Demyx as the blond strode out onstage, awash in confused disbelief. "This is the main stage," he asserted, perplexed. "The – the main stage, correct? Not the second stage?"

Throwing a grin over his shoulder, Demyx agreed, "Sure is! The second stage is a lot smaller. This is the one where we do all the major productions. The current one is Hamlet. You should see Hamlet and Ophelia in action, they're such great actors." The wistfulness again entered his voice, momentarily distracting Zexion's train of thoughts – but then he followed Demyx's gaze over onto a collection of the historically-dressed cast sharing a quick break between scenes, with crewmembers shifting back and forth in the wings holding props and bundles of costuming and fluttering scripts, and his mind was very firmly back on the matter at hand.

At this point, asking questions, demanding answers – those were useless avenues. Demyx was obviously unsurprised at how many people were around, nobody else seemed to find it strange that this veritable ghost-theatre was, between one moment and the next, brimming with energy and activity, so looking to them for information would doubtlessly prove fruitless. Once again, against his will and with increasing nervousness, Zexion's mind touched on murmurs of, haunted. There were always tales floating around about the supernatural, were there not? Things that went bump in the night, fixated spirits, all the rest?

His steps slowing as he followed after Demyx, head lifting high, Zexion looked about him with troubled scrutiny. While the blond approached the backdrop, hands on hips, and leaned back to gaze up at it and assess the problem, Zexion slowly turned, running his eyes over every wall and person, staring into the large spotlights that illuminated the stage. This time, he didn't try using his mind to find sense in it, didn't attempt to rationalise his way through – he simply observed, absorbed, took in the details and let them sit within his skull. He inhaled the cool air, and smelled nothing of mildew or dust. When he turned his gaze to his feet, shoes dragging deliberately over the wood, no trails were left behind. The stage was clean. How many hours of scrubbing and sanding and revarnishing had he initially estimated that would take?

The longer he stood there, the more fiercely haunted pulsed within his thoughts, sneaking up behind every idea, insisting itself grimly. The longer he stood there, the less reason he could find to argue. Right now, he might as well have been the phantom, considering how entirely displaced he felt himself to be. This was not a normal set of circumstances.

Perhaps he needed to hire an exorcist of some form. Where did one go to employ that sort of service? The Yellow Pages?

"Hey, Zexion." The man startled, twisting sharply to see Demyx smiling at him, a sweet, open expression, and inexplicably, he felt a wrench of guilt. An exorcist – for this? For Demyx? The boy cocked his head at the unusual expression on his face, an eyebrow rising questioningly. "…Everything okay?" Before he could answer, perhaps accustomed to these odd little turns of health and sanity, Demyx went on, "I have to go and find my crew manager, you want to come with?" As Zexion stared hard at him, the blond faltered. "Um, that is, uh, you don't have to, of course. If you'd rather stay here and, and maybe talk to the actors instead, you could find out about the…"

"No," the man broke in, still staring, a frown in place, an uneasiness in his chest. "I'd rather stick close to you, if you don't mind." He could see that Demyx didn't know whether to be happy or disconcerted about this. He must have been making the boy uncomfortable with his constant mood-swings, not to mention bursts of apparent ill health; but all the same, in the manner that Zexion had already begun to attribute as 'typically Demyx', the blond accepted his words, his decision, and said nothing of his own thoughts. He merely – smiled. "Come on, then. You can meet Cid."

He then did precisely what Zexion had wished he wouldn't, and made straight for the stage's right wing, sidestepping the busy fuss of crewmembers effortlessly. Glancing back, noticing his charge lagging, Demyx reached back and hooked a finger into the sleeve of Zexion's coat, far enough down that they might as well have been holding hands, the man having to fight off a jump at the proximity of their fingers. Maybe the jolt he kept getting was… ectoplasm-related. That could have been it; perhaps it was some spiritual residue thing. Maybe his life force was leaping over into Demyx, and that was why it buzzed when the boy was holding onto him like this.

To be honest, it wasn't an altogether unpleasant thought.

Before the brilliant and ultimately bossy actors that Demyx apparently admired despite what sounded to be deep personality flaws could appear and harangue him, the two of them had vanished into the right-hand side of the theatre, leaving the stage behind. The blond moved with purpose, evidently knowing precisely where to go to reach this Cid person. Zexion gazed about with a sick sensation in his stomach as they walked, taking note of the way everything on this side of the theatre was just as well-kept as the left-hand side had been. There was no denying it anymore – the Royal King of Hearts was severely haunted, even down to the very walls themselves. This was the absolute proof; the right-hand side of the theatre was no longer dilapidated. Whatever sense of memory they had must have been reviving it, these – these…

Staring at the back of Demyx's head, he couldn't quite believe 'ghosts' was the term he was looking for. It was too stereotypical, too detached. It didn't feel right to think of Demyx in such a way, as though he was some frightening spook needing eliminating. Because, when one considered that he had just decided he was in the middle of a mass haunting, the fact that Zexion felt entirely unafraid was due almost entirely to the blond's efforts and attitude. He simply couldn't feel endangered. As such… he preferred to think of him in a more… subjective form. Earthbound spirit, was perhaps what he was seeking. Poor, lost soul.

Poor Demyx.

He seemed happy enough, but in the end, could he be, if he was here in a dusty old theatre rather than whatever passed for the afterlife? Maybe… maybe he'd had the right idea with that whole exorcist thing. If Demyx was somehow trapped here – if all of these people were, the trio of friends and the man Luxord and the pushy lead actors included – didn't that mean that they would need someone to… set them free? To untie whatever bonds kept them laced to this world, and the theatre in particular?

Again, he felt a wrench, this time at the thought of the blond disappearing. Somehow, in such a short period of time, he'd come to grow quite – quite attached to Demyx. He genuinely liked him, the snippet of his personality that he'd been displaying so far, and in the back of his mind… Zexion had looked forward to getting to know him better. But now…

His eyes, which had lowered to travel along the floor, rose to take in the blond's back. What would happen if Demyx was exorcised? Where would he go? And – why couldn't Zexion stop himself from caring so much about that? He didn't even – know the boy, so why was…?

"So, what did you think?" The anxious voice broke into his deepening thoughts, Zexion blinking, Demyx at his side now instead of in front – when had that happened? He'd been so intent on his hypothesising that he hadn't noticed the blond slow to match his pace. Zexion felt a flutter in his chest at the sudden closeness, cleared his throat, dug his hands into his pockets and asked back, "About what, precisely?"

"The backdrop!" The boy was worrying again, hands clasped together, shoulders hunched. On either side of them, crewmembers and the occasional costumed thespian passed by, their footsteps clomping, everyone seeming so – focused and energetic. Distantly, Zexion supposed that if one had to die and remain earthbound, it really wouldn't be so bad to be caught within a never-ending dress rehearsal, provided you enjoyed what you were doing. Perhaps there had been an accident here, during the preparations for one of their productions; perhaps whatever had occurred had been the reason for shutting down and forgetting about the theatre. It must have happened so long ago… How long had they been lingering like this?

It was with sadness now that Zexion looked upon Demyx, the blond puzzled by such a response. "…You're not – going to really tear it down, are you?" he softly asked, as though this could be the only possible reason behind Zexion's sorrow. The man sighed, a deep, slow sound, and reached up to touch the blond's head, placing his hand gently atop the spikes. He hadn't even noticed the backdrop; he'd had bigger things to think about.

"Of course I won't," he said, matching Demyx's tone. "If it's something you care about so much, how could I do such a cruel thing? I don't want to upset you." For a moment, the blond could only stare at him. Once again, Zexion's tone and manner had him off-balance; but in the next moment, like the sun breaking out across a dull horizon, Demyx was smiling again, a delighted expression, tinged with bashfulness. He glowed as if he'd just received the kindest compliment of his life, a mixture of pleased and flustered, all mixed together into a sparkling expression that hurt Zexion's heart to witness. How could this person be just a residue, a shadow? How?

Laughing happily, Demyx reached up to touch the hand upon his head, saying, "Thank you! You're the one who's kind, Zexion."

Would he think as much if he knew that, within the confines of his skull, Zexion was beginning to seriously wonder how he could banish the boy onwards to wherever it was he needed to be? Damn it. This was getting more difficult by the minute. What in God's name was it about Demyx that had Zexion so bloody captivated? He wanted to stomp his feet and shout it out as a demand, and be answered by whatever force it was that had the boy stuck here in the first place. This sort of helplessness was not something that the man was either familiar with, or appreciative of. He closed his eyes and drew free of the boy's grip, feeling heavy. "Demyx…" When he opened his eyes, the boy was looking down at him with more trust than he deserved after such a short acquaintanceship. "You seem – like… a very happy person," he said, uselessly. "Are you? Here?"

The blond thought about this, lifted his shoulders innocently. "I'm happy enough?"

Zexion ran his fingers through his long fringe, pushing it back over his head for a moment as he blew out another breath, wondering what the hell he was supposed to do. Maybe he just – needed to get out of here, for now. Demyx was affecting his ability to think properly, once again no doubt due to that whole – ectoplasm thing. Whatever it was. If Zexion could just get some perspective, some fresh air, some distance, he would be able to set his thoughts in a nice orderly train from which he could plan something. Anything at all.

From the nearby opening of the service entrance, just a little further ahead, a voice boomed out, "Dem? That you? I swear to God, I can hear your whiny voice a mile off."

The boy made a face, and, forgetting the strange nature of their current discussion, yelled back, "If that were so, you'd be able to hear me in any part of the theatre, Cid! You shouldn't tell me off for disappearing all the time if you can hear where I am!"

There was the sound of clomping footsteps approaching, before a compact, blond man swung around the corner, gripping the wall and half-hanging from it as he went from mock-glaring at Demyx, to noticing Zexion and sending him a hard look. Through a cigarette that Zexion had to literally bite his tongue to keep from demanding be put out, out of fire and health safety issues, he grunted, "Who's the lah-di-dah in the suit?"

Demyx scowled for the first time since Zexion had met him, leading him to conclude that the man's comment was overly derogatory, despite its failure to actually insult him. "Don't call him that!" Demyx scolded. "His name's Zexion, and he's nice, and he's the owner of this place! You wanna get your ass fired, Cid?"

The man straightened, squinting an eye through lazy puffs of smoke, studying Zexion more closely, who, for his part, merely stood there and patiently accepted it – he could see no sense in fighting, especially not if this was a ghost. What on earth would be the point? No wonder they'd all reacted in the same way, so sceptical of his presence – if they lived – existed – permanently in this charade, then surely the introduction of a newcomer was the most unusual thing any of them had experienced in decades, whether they realised it or not. Did this continue constantly, this in-between shadow world? Was it forever running, like an aged film in the background of the clarity of actual reality, just the slightest bit out of sight and reach?

In response to Demyx's question, rhetorical or not, the man named Cid said, "I'd like to see this shrimp try. That ain't the owner, kid." He stepped forward from around the corner, his sense of fashion very similar once again to Demyx's, although a little discoloured through longer life and wear, and with a warm coat hanging over the top. This was definitely a motif he couldn't ignore – when he thought about it, it fit nicely with the period in which the theatre had existed at its peak. Zexion lifted his chin and stood firm, adopting a haughty air as the man approached. Cid slowed a little upon seeing the change of attitude, the coldness in Zexion's eyes, a sliver of doubt showing in his own. After all, Zexion played the part of the theatre-owning entrepreneur rather flawlessly, if he did say so himself – practice being the path to perfection, and all that. While Demyx spluttered and fumed indignantly at his side, Zexion calmly said, "I have bought this theatre. If your prior knowledge was required for that, please do inform me, I'll be sure that the necessary parties contact you immediately."

Cid paused, eyes narrowing. He glanced at Demyx, then back to Zexion, stubbornness blooming in his features. "Those're pretty words, son," he replied quietly.

"I am well trained in the English language," came the crisp answer. Several tense heartbeats elapsed, Demyx glancing nervously between them, before Cid suddenly let out a bray of laughter, one nicotine-stained hand coming out to clap Zexion on the shoulder hard enough to just about buckle his knees. He wasn't too sure that hadn't been Cid's intention, but at least now the man was – for the moment – allowing his suspicions to take a backseat.

"Okay," he said jovially, eyes twinkling above an unshaven face. "Okay, you're not too bad." He leaned inward, bringing the reek of cigarettes with him, Zexion struggling to keep his features composed and not jerk back out of olfactory range. Voice dropping an octave, the man then warned, "But I'll be checkin' out that story of yours, son, and you'd better hope I get some proof to persuade me."

Flatly, Zexion replied, "With bated breath, I wait."

Cid gave another, "Heh," reluctantly pleased to have found a sparring partner possessing some gumption.

Hesitantly, Demyx broke in with, "Cid, you need to go have a look at the fifth backdrop. It's set up, but one of the corners has come loose, and you'll need to climb up and nail it back in place."

"Aha," the man said, clamping his teeth around the butt of his cigarette. "I see, I see." To Zexion, he added, "Can't trust a Demyx with this kind of job, you know – boys like Dem, the second they wind up with the hammer, they forget to keep their feet on the ladder." He made the noise of a tree falling, left arm accompanying it as a visual aid as he bellowed, "Tim-ber!" Zexion winced minutely at the volume, Demyx grimacing at the insinuation of his incompetence, and with a laugh, Cid punched the boy's shoulder hard enough to rock him, and went to find some tools.

With a sheepish grin, scratching the back of his head, Demyx said, "Uh, don't mind him. He's what my grandma calls 'exuberant'."

"Hm, yes. Charmingly obnoxious, perhaps." He sounded less than impressed, but nevertheless, Zexion was smiling as he looked at the boy.

At this, Demyx laughed, continuing, "He's right, though – you do talk pretty. You must have had one hell of an education, Zexion." A tingle went through the man at the sound of his name, mouth opening to respond with something bordering on affection, when a gust of cold wind came sweeping into the building via the service entry's doorway, swinging the ends of his coat and making the blond shiver. Zexion murmured, "Ah," and automatically stripped off his coat, hanging it over the boy's lanky frame. Of course, this left him instead to bear the cold, but he had on thicker clothing in the first place, and… and anyway, he preferred it this way. Ghost or no, Zexion didn't want to see Demyx cold. He just – didn't like it.

While the blond visibly blushed, astonished at the chivalry, green eyes fixed with curious surprise on the dark blue sweater and designer jeans that had previously been mostly hidden by the long coat, Zexion turned curtly and commanded, "Will somebody please have a care and close that damned…" His eyes fell upon the outside opening, mouth going slack as he breathed out the last word, "…door…" Then, nearly inaudible, he muttered, "What in God's name…?"

Cid growled over, "Don't you talk all high and mighty to us, Mister New Owner. We keep that open so the fresh air comes in. You just gotta wear a coat, is all. This place gets stuffy as all hell, otherwise."

"Yes, I had… planned on installing a proper ventilation system, the replica didn't take that into account…" Zexion sounded weak and distant.

"Oh, boy, you're not feeling sick again, are you?" Demyx asked, reaching over to feel the man's forehead, making him blink. He tried to look at the blond, meet his gaze and assure him otherwise, but… he couldn't take his eyes from the doorway.

"My God," he said again.

It was like looking out onto another world. Where he had left a morning's snowfall sitting outside the theatre like a frozen grey blanket, the sky deep and dark, it was now the bright, crystalline blue that came from fine weather during the coldest months. Just as cold, if not colder because of the lack of cloud coverage blocking the heat close to the planet, but completely lacking the ice. There wasn't even, from what he could immediately see, anything that suggested snow had been – no sludge, no slush, not even some muddy remains. It was as if the weather had been fine for days, if not weeks. Uncertainly, Zexion supposed that if a haunting was strong enough, group-minded enough, that it could alter the way the theatre appeared to him, then surely to alter the outdoors… at least, the appearance of the outdoors… was similarly as doable? And yet, the wind coming in felt real – it bit through his sweater, through his shirt, made the hair rustle against his face and neck. At the same time, the sunshine that came through – why hadn't he noticed from the break room how bright it was? He had been right there, right near a window, but had managed to miss it, had been too otherwise distracted to connect the pieces. It hadn't opened up onto the ground, thus giving away the dryness of things, perhaps that had been the difference; he had seen the trees, and once again forced his expectations onto reality to change it himself. Was that, then, what these people were doing? Was a similar principle at work? They didn't know they had died, didn't know that their time had come, and their… their unshakeable conviction of what things ought to be like formed it enough to be something almost real?

That view, though… it looked pretty real to Zexion. It opened onto the rear parking lot, as he knew it was supposed to, but at the same time – things looked different. It wasn't quite as he remembered it. A fence was missing, and a building in place that he didn't recall seeing on his way in. As he took an unconscious step towards the opening, he also managed to catch sight of a vehicle parked outside that didn't fit his idea of what a car should be like; it was something out of the bloody forties. It occurred to him in a slow sort of way, the nature of things. He knew what it all meant, right from the start, but his consciousness, his – adaptive powers, took a while to catch up and register it all. What he was seeing, what he was seeing right now, was the world as it had been during the lives of these people. He was being shown – a snippet of the past. It truly was like a reel of film, a picture show that he had managed to stumble his way into, memories so clear and powerful that they had actually reshaped the world. But… only for him, he realised. He had seen nothing of the contractors that he'd left behind, and if they had been going to show up, it would have been here, where they had been focusing the beginnings of their work. So, he had been singled out. For – some reason, by some means. Perhaps because he had gone in deep enough…? Further than anyone had been in years…

Into his mind flashed the image of the cloth-covered object he had so coveted, that which he had pulled an entire brittle shelving unit onto himself struggling to obtain. Perhaps he had – stirred things up, disturbed the natural order by interfering with it. Shaken himself sideways into the flickering version of reality, this construction outside of time and possibility.

Without realising it, so lost within his shocked thoughts and ruminations, Zexion had shifted closer to the exit, was standing there staring out at the world as it hadn't been when he'd opened his eyes that morning. It was so tempting to take a step out there, to either break the illusion or prove it to himself. He was close to the threshold, with Demyx and now Cid watching on, neither of them knowing what he was thinking of – he barely knowing himself what was going through his mind. The parking lot looked even more solid from here, rather than less; the nearer he got, the less illusory it appeared to be. He could have pretended, from the other side of the room, but right close like this…

As he went to take a further step, something made him hesitate. Something – deep-rooted and instinctual. His mind, it cared to continue, but all at once a bolt of fear and reluctance spiked so deeply into him that he almost swayed. Across the room, Demyx started towards him with concern. All it would take was one step, one step more and he would be pushing through the barrier between in here and out there. He would be either back on his own side of mortality's veil, or – well. Or.

It was this 'or' that was screaming at him to not take another pace. It crawled through his skin, sped up his heart, made the smallest hairs on his neck stiffen out from his flesh. It was the most ominous premonition he'd ever received, the only premonition, and its power was… frightening. Nauseating. It was like some invisible person taking him by the ear and shrieking straight into his skull to not be such a fucking fool. Don't step outside. Don't for God's sake step outside.

Do you want to lose everything?

As Demyx reached his elbow, Zexion stepped back, away from the opening, away from the sunshine. Leaving the boy grasping for him in an attempt to hold him steady, the man turned and strode from the room, back into the passageways, back towards the stage, without ever uttering a word.

"Uh – um!" Demyx followed him at a quick trot, Cid muttering something in the background before he was out of earshot. With Zexion's coat rustling around his knees – he was quite a bit taller than its owner, on Zexion it went well down his calves towards his ankles – the blond endeavoured to catch up, tugging the collar closed as he went. "Zexion? Zexion, are you feeling – all right?"

The man ignored him, continued onwards as though Demyx hadn't spoken, hearing only the stumbling scuff of the boy's footsteps as he struggled to keep up despite his longer legs. Zexion's pace was swift, unrelenting, determined. He was grimly terrified, had to get out of this place, had to return to where he belonged. That sensation, that unholy creeping, he never wanted to feel it again.

As he reached the right wing of the main stage, weaving between the workers, he heard Demyx trip over something, heard a clatter, heard someone say, "Demyx!" in that same tone of voice that always made the pair of them jump. He couldn't help but glance over, then do a double-take and stare as a man with bright pink hair and tights sauntered over with a sneer. It took Zexion a moment to realise that the tights, at least, were part of costume. Somehow, that extravagant flamboyancy didn't seem out of place on a man with pink hair, flowers tucked into the collar of his outfit. Against his will, Zexion slowed, glanced back, saw Demyx go pale and stagger to the side, still trying to regain his balance as the man approached. "Where the hell have you been, you little idiot?" the man demanded with regal disdain. "Didn't you know that Larxene wanted you here to fix the backdrop? Are you capable of anything we ask of you?"

"W-where is she?" the blond asked in a small voice, and the fear evident in his face and tone brought Zexion to a complete halt before he'd even realised his steps were hesitating. He half-turned towards them, partway across the stage, eyes widening as the pink-haired man roughly took a hold of one of the lapels of his coat and gave a contemptuous shake, Demyx swinging as he gripped the thick fabric.

"Where did you get this? This is much too good quality for you to be wearing, little crew-boy. So where did it come from? Stealing, Demyx?" He suddenly laughed, a rich, pleasant sound that could almost had contradicted the general nastiness he exuded if one didn't know better. Not only that, but the more that he spoke, the more Zexion recognised that voice – he had been the deliverer of the Hamlet soliloquy that had so terrorised him during his first visit. This man was one of the whisperers in the dark. His current voice, significantly less quiet, continued to jeer, "Stealing from the rich to give to the poor, otherwise known as yourself?"

"Put him down, now. Don't be so ridiculous." Zexion's voice, cold and business-like, cut across the stage like a bullet. Everyone fell silent, all the cast members, all the crew – everyone ceased at the frigid, uncompromising command. Zexion himself might as well have been an actor for the sheer reach and influence his voice contained, the effortlessness it took to send it soaring to snatch one's attention and maintain it. Slowly, eyes round, the pink-haired man twisted to look at him, still holding on to Demyx, the blond looking positively petrified at the situation. Turning to face them fully, eyes like chips of ice, Zexion asked, his words reverberating with the stage's natural acoustics, "Were you aware that what you're currently doing is called 'harassment'? Physically dominating a colleague is call for dismissal from a production company; it won't be tolerated, not any more than verbal threats or other kinds of abuse. If you continue this behaviour, you will be dismissed."

Before the usual question of 'Who are you?' could be uttered, he began retracing his steps, returning towards Demyx, snapping, "I am the new owner of this establishment, and as such, I have the final say in all that occurs within its walls. Whether or not you have heard of the change in management before today is no concern of mine, I wouldn't expect a mere actor would be privy to the goings-on of the higher-ups anyway." At this, the pink-haired man looked like he'd been slapped, his grip loosening on Demyx out of sheer shock. As Zexion reached them, he snaked one hand around the back of Demyx's neck and yanked him free, drew him near, the boy looking about as stunned as the actor. "And, for future reference," he continued frostily, glaring directly up into the man's eyes, relenting not even for a split-second, "this coat is my coat. I allowed Demyx to borrow it, as he was cold, and yes, it costs quite a lot more than he could afford. I trust him, however, to not ruin it, since he isn't an imbecile." He sucked a breath, prepared to deliver the final blow. "And, furthermore, if I discover that your rough treatment of it has loosened even a single thread," he warned, "I will know precisely who to come to for the purchase of a new one; and I can assure you, sir, that it is no more within your price range than it is Demyx's."

The silence that followed could have been split by a pin dropping. It positively echoed, Zexion's voice ringing in their heads long after it had faded from the air. Satisfied by the muted disbelief stamped across the man's features, Zexion turned his back upon the actor, shifted his hand to Demyx's upper arm, and said, "Come, Demyx – I need you to get something for me, if you wouldn't mind."

Stumbling, the blond shook his head wildly, stammered, "No, I, I don't m-mind!" He was dragged across the stage by Zexion's hand, hardly able to put one foot in front of the other until they had passed through the left wing, and left the silence – still maintaining itself quite nicely – behind. After a couple of minutes had passed, Demyx started breathing fast enough to hyperventilate, but the second Zexion glanced over at him, the blond suddenly burst out laughing. It was the most startled and overwhelmed sound the man had ever heard, Demyx having to pull to a stop and lean against the wall, letting out helpless guffaws that had tears springing to his eyes.

"My God!" he gasped, half-bent with the force of his mirth, face turning pink. "Oh, my God!" Clapping his hands over his mouth to try and stifle the endless bubbling of giggles, he exclaimed, muffled by his fingers, "I've never heard anyone ever talk to Marluxia like that! People don't talk to Marluxia like that! Nobody! Ever!" He gave his head a hysterical shake to emphasise his point, gawking at Zexion through a watery gaze. "I can't believe… How did you -? Wow!" He went back to his giggling, burying his face into the collar of Zexion's coat, the man unable to keep a smile from his face at the display. He was pretty sure that a large chunk of Demyx's astonishment came not only from somebody standing up to that prick of a man, but the fact that it had been done for him. He got the feeling that, more than people not talking to Marluxia like that, people didn't stick up for Demyx like that too often – especially not people of Zexion's standing and power. It made him feel warm inside to know that he could make the boy happy like this.

The feeling didn't last too long, however, his own chuckles, which had started in response to Demyx's, petering out as he remembered what had got him stalking off in the first place, and what he intended to do from here. He became sombre, watching Demyx's glee, letting the laughter wash over and through him. His sadness returned, because – what if this was just all some kind of ephemeral dream? What if the only reason nobody ever stuck up for Demyx was because they were caught in this loop of one day, forever shifting back and forth within the theatre, forever saying the same things, having the same disputes, with Zexion's presence merely acting like a piece of glass working its way through the flesh of conduct?

What if Demyx truly was dead, and this just his… confused and lingering shadow? Seeing his brightness like this, it hurt to think about. It caused a fog in his brain, a temporary short-circuiting of rationality. He had to get out of here; had to get some – mortal perspective.

"Demyx." He said it softly, so as not to startle the boy. Dancing green eyes turned his way. "I need you to help me with something in the store room. I need to… find something." He had to jump the reel and return to solid reality. The longer he remained here, the more quietly tense he grew. He didn't belong. It worried him that the illusion had lasted for as long as it had, that he had merged into it so seamlessly. After seeing the clarity with which the outdoors was being presented, and feeling that – that portentous alarm upon approaching it… he just – he needed to be free of this. He needed to know what was real, and what was not.

Finally ceasing his laughter, catching his breath, the blond pulled his hands away from his mouth, but continued to merrily smile. "Sure thing," he promised, voice warm with the aftermath of such mirth. "Anything at all." Zexion eyed him for a moment, then nodded, turned and resumed walking. Demyx pushed away from the wall, stumbling and catching up, throwing him a quick look and saying shyly, "Um, about earlier – thanks a lot, Zexion." At his tone, the man glanced over, felt a tingle at his fingertips, suppressed the urge to reach across and ruffle the blond's hair. That wasn't the sort of gesture Zexion usually had the urge to indulge in, and he wasn't about to start now, but – but it was there. The urge. It was there.

Clearing his throat, directing his gaze forward with a lowering of brows, he replied, "You're welcome. Of course. I wasn't about to just let him bully you like that, and neither should you. You're worth much more than that sort of treatment, I can tell as much after even this short amount of time."

A happy flush colouring the boy's cheeks, Demyx trotted to keep alongside the man's swift strides. After a moment, however, Zexion became aware of Demyx's stare becoming more intent, a frown touching the blond's features as if he were remembering Zexion's previous behaviour – or perhaps it was merely the pale tinge to his flesh, the tight set of his jaw, that had some of the joy leaking out of Demyx's face. It was predictable that the blond should next hesitantly venture, "And about earlier earlier – are you okay? Were you? You left pretty quickly before." Anxiousness, never too far away, infused the boy's expression, his pace quickening a little to try and get ahead to meet the man's eyes. "If, if Cid offended you or something, I know that he –"

"It's fine." Zexion didn't want to think too closely on what had happened, on that which had propelled him in the opposite direction so forcefully. "I wasn't offended. I just suddenly…" He drew a breath, found it a little difficult to complete. "I just felt the need to find something that I might have lost."

Demyx perked up, appearing interested. "Oh! In the store room, I'm guessing? Oh." Understanding dawned in his features. "You dropped something when you were in there? When you fainted?"

Fainted? Zexion hadn't fainted, he'd pulled the shelving unit on top of himself, had hit his head hard on the ground. He still couldn't discount the idea that this was perhaps a dream of some form, except that perhaps it felt the slightest bit too real. He knew dreams from reality, he was sure. Yet, when reality became something from a dream, who could rightly tell the difference anymore? He shook his head sharply to clear it, felt a distant throb, let out a sigh of frustration that silenced Demyx, but only for a short while before the boy curiously inquired, "Zexion – what did you lose?"

Ah. Now, this was a difficult question to answer, was it not? How did one go about saying 'I don't know what I lost, but it's about yea high and was for a brief while on top of the shelf over there'? Honestly. "It's… something important to me," he murmured distractedly, trying to sound vague enough to not inspire yet more questions. Luckily, whether getting the hint or deciding he was beneath detail, Demyx accepted this with a placid nod, and merely pulled Zexion's coat a little tighter around himself. Perhaps he simply felt that whatever the man did was unquestionable; he seemed to be forming a sort of admiration for him, after all. Ordinarily, such behaviour irritated Zexion, the people portraying it usually glory-seeking, air-headed idiots… but in Demyx, it seemed quite natural, and he thought that this was what made the difference. Demyx wasn't affecting it to attract the man, he was just… doing it. It was in his nature to look up to those around him, who he evidently viewed as being better than him. Perhaps if Zexion hadn't already seen him display similar attitudes towards virtually everyone else he might have been more contemptuous of it, but really, as it was, he just found it – almost cute. Of course, he would want the blond to have a little more confidence, but, well… it wasn't so bad having Demyx admiring him.

Upon reaching the store room, finding its door still standing open from when they had last been in there, Zexion slowed to a stop, stood in the doorway and gazed in, Demyx beside him looking expectant. "So, what was it again that we're looking for?"

Zexion slowly released a breath, rolled his shoulders, one eye squinting as his hands came up to uncertainly indicate the vague size and shape of the object they were looking for. "About… this large? And cloth-wrapped." Demyx nodded brightly, waited for more information, then faltered when it became apparent that this was all that was being disclosed for now. Zexion shook his head helplessly, knowing that it seemed strange, but incapable of anything more. Without another word, he entered the room, Demyx hesitating before trailing after him, their eyes automatically scanning the immediate floor. "You're certain you didn't see anything when you first came in?" Zexion asked, a crease between his brows, heart rate increasing gradually at the mere thought of – of the item. Whatever it was. Damn it, even now he felt its draw. He didn't even need to be able to see it to want it; it was a nagging, eating feeling in his gut, a roughness of nerve-endings that made him want to fidget and pace.

Shaking his head earnestly, the blond replied, "To be honest, all I really noticed was you lying flat on your back. Sorry."

Zexion blew out a breath that was half an exasperated laugh. Trust Demyx to apologise for being more concerned about the unconscious person on the floor than any particular objects nearby. "It's fine. Honestly. It… it can't have got far. All we need to do is search." His voice had tightened in the space of that short sentence, his tension obvious. Demyx bit his bottom lip softly.

"It must be important to you. Don't worry, Zexion – we'll definitely find it." He flashed the man a determined smile, Zexion unable to keep himself from echoing the expression, feeling the irrational grip on his insides loosen somewhat. Demyx was the first to move, crouching down and peering intently around the room to see if Zexion's mythical possession had rolled anywhere. Nodding to himself, inhaling resolutely, he too dedicated himself to the hunt, beginning to shift some nearby boxes, eyes keen for a glimpse of dull fabric. In his mind, he could picture it so clearly, could once again feel the spark of need that had driven him towards it in the first place.

It was strange, though; the longer that he thought of it, the longer that he relived that sensation, the more he found that it felt familiar somehow. It had not been… an isolated incident. He knew that he had felt it again, whether beforehand or since though he couldn't quite determine… It was the most curious sensation of déjà vu that he had ever encountered.

It was only when Demyx took hold of his sleeve, half-gripping his hand, that Zexion realised with a jolt that this was that same feeling – this, Demyx touching him, the alien spark of energy that leapt between them, that – that ectoplasm thing. But that made no sense; he certainly hadn't gone in search of a ghost object, especially not when it had been in his own reality that he had first noticed it.

That sort of thing couldn't happen, could it?

He was distracted from the clutch by Demyx exclaiming, "Oh! I think I see something, over by that shelf?" Zexion's attention snapped instantly in the direction in which the boy's other hand pointed, Demyx tugging him over towards it.

His eyes devouring the area, the man demanded, "I don't see what you're pointing at; where is it?" His throat was tight, heart thumping, a swirling excitement building from the base of his chest and working its way upward.

"I see something," Demyx said, drawing him to a set of shelves and falling down onto his knees, leaning down and looking through a collection of props – children's toys, oddly enough. A spinning top, a Jack-in-the-box, a glass bowl filled with coloured pebbles, a music box with a rearing horse set atop its lid. The blond began moving them carefully aside, Zexion crouching quickly beside him, hunching to try and see as well. Focused on his task, tongue poking out of the side of his mouth, Demyx pulled a couple of things out, a small, coloured ball rolling away across the room. With a small grunt, reaching his arm in, he said, "Yeah, I definitely see something." Zexion's palms were damp, fingers clutching at his thighs, electricity in his veins as he needed the object, how could this be happening all over again? How could he so desperately desire that which he didn't even know?

"Here, hold this. Be careful with it, though, it's my favourite." The blond had the music box in hand, circular and heavy-looking, crafted metal and rather skilfully painted. Zexion grabbed it without a second thought, anxious to finally be presented with the elusive creation that had got him here in the first place –

– and the world went as dark as if a switch had been thrown. At first, that was Zexion's assumption: somebody had turned out the light, had snuck in behind them and flicked it off. But, wait, that couldn't be right – he couldn't have failed to notice someone within the room, right in the middle of the floor as they stretched up to yank on the chain controlling the light bulb's current of power. Besides… it wasn't as simple as that.

All the lights had gone out. He could sense it even as his train of thought continued to stumble over itself in search of an explanation, the man twisted slowly on his toes to gaze over at the doorway at the dark, gloomy doorway, the silent hall beyond it. He smelled – dust on the air. Grime. He hadn't been able to moments ago. It had sprung up all around him, the scent of age, of damp. All the little noises were gone as suddenly as if deafness had fallen upon his ears. His fingers tightened around the solid shape of the music box, and in the next moment, a bolt shooting through his heart, Zexion whipped back around, gasping, "Demyx!" He was up on his feet in an instant, swinging around, breaths audible in the silence as he twisted back and forth, searching for the boy who had just moments ago been on his hands and knees in the bright light, grasping for that which didn't even directly concern him. He had been doing it purely because… Zexion had asked him to.

But now, he wasn't even here.

As the pieces fell into place inside Zexion's mind, swiftly now, the shock and surprise receding rapidly, he realised that he had – jumped the reel. Returned. The theatre was grim, and lightless, and empty. Full of souls, yet barren. The Royal King of Hearts was colder than it had been, and he noticed that he was not wearing his coat; he did not have his coat, because of course, he had left it with Demyx.

Becoming aware of the weight at the end of his right arm, Zexion lifted up the metal music box, stared at it wildly through the darkness, eyes wide. He mentally swathed it in material, placed it atop the rickety shelving, recognised the lumpiness of it, understood within the space of a breath what it all meant. The unit was still fallen, he was even standing in between two of its shelves. Only a minute ago, it had been standing and solid, but as he studied it now, he saw that it was in fact just as aged as he had initially suspected. He had climbed it, it had fallen under his weight, he had – hit the ground and…

The movie flickered on, out of sight, out of reach. However, to be perfectly honest, despite the fact that he was back and even had what he knew to be the coveted item here within his grasp, he couldn't find himself happy about it. It had lost its spark, its dragging appeal. It was just – an object.

Rather, Zexion found himself faced with the idea that Demyx, and so many others, remained trapped behind a veil that could not simply be pushed aside, and felt a flicker of despair. The hand holding the music box swinging back down to his side, he gazed about the room with heavy shoulders, feeling that, regardless of electricity supply, taking away the blond had been enough to rob some of the light from his surroundings.

Damn it. He hadn't expected it to happen so immediately. He wasn't ready to just be snapped from one place to the next, without even so much as a final word to Demyx. He closed his eyes, exhaled carefully. The important thing was that he was back now, where he belonged. He needed to leave before whatever force it was that controlled his whereabouts changed its mind. No matter his regrets at leaving the blond so abruptly, he was craving fresh air, the sky.

He needed to go outside and see the snow, and reaffirm to himself what reality truly was.